Meet the London Sparrows, Hackney’s finest wheelchair basketball team

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The wheelchair basketball game between London Sparrows and Brixton Ballers should have started by now, but a tardy referee has delayed the tip-off.

The Sparrows’ moustachioed player-coach Amir is overseeing an extended warm-up while they wait.

“We’re gonna have fun, but at the same time work. No one gets easy shots,” he instructs a dozen players from his wheelchair.

The London team makes a slow start and ends the first ten-minute quarter down 8-12 to the visitors.

London Sparrows end the first quarter behind

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Brixton enjoy early success with their passing game; Credit: Thomas Macaulay

Amir takes charge from the start of the second. Polio has limited his arm movements but he runs the court like a veteran playmaker, picking passes left and right.

“Even when I was a brilliant shooter, most of my game was about assists,” he says. “The beauty of basketball is playing as a team.”

Wheelchair basketball evolved from a form of rehabilitation for injured World War II veterans into a sport that is now played by 100,000 people around the world.

Amir entered the game in 1986, when he and a friend called Leroy founded a team then known as the Hackney Sparrows.

“We were little people with little power but we worked together to be high flyers.

“At a time when everybody was calling themselves lions or tigers, we chose the name sparrows. Everybody was making fun of us.”

The mocking soon subsided. The Sparrows worked their way up from the sport’s bottom division to the top.

Past stars for the Sparrows include Ade Adepitan MBE, who won bronze at the 2004 Paralympics and fronted Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympics.

On-court, the Sparrows are getting into gear. The shaven-headed Fred, playing as a guard, extends their lead from under the basket.

London Sparrows take control

The chairs used by guards offer more flexibility, allowing them to lean into space to find passes. The taller forwards sit upright and dominate the scoresheet.

“They get all the glory,” says Fred, a software developer. “We do all the hard work.”

One player keeping the score respectable for the Brixton side is an ex-Sparrow called Francis. He hits a long range shot from one corner, then a second from the other. His former teammates cheer him on.

“He came to me about five or six years ago,” says Amir. “He couldn’t even lift the ball over his head.

“After about two years of training, he could shoot for the first time.

His contributions are not enough to catch the rampant Sparrows, who end the half 36-18 up.

The Paralympic legacy

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Two players battle for position before half-time; Credit: Thomas Macaulay

Michiel, an articulate New Yorker with a Star of David pendant hanging from his neck, comes off the bench to score the first points of the second half on the SPACe sports centre court at Hackney Community College.

The centre was a training venue for Paralympic basketball teams in 2012.

Faded banners from the London games still hang from the rafters. “Inspire a generation,” they promise.

“Everyone thought they would,” says Michiel. “But after the Paralympics, [the interest] petered off.”

The Great Britain men’s team took gold at last year’s European Championship, while the women claimed bronze. But media coverage was scant.

“If you don’t give the sport the exposure”, says Michiel, “you can’t blame the public for not being interested, because they don’t see it.”

“After the Olympic games, interest in our team went up 1000 per cent,” says Amir.

“Because of the amount of work we did in Hackney parks, leisure centres and schools, thousands of people who had never seen the game came to it through us and were introduced to the game.

“But right after the Paralympics, all of a sudden it was forgotten.

“This country focuses on the GB team. There has been huge money invested there. But that money has not come down to the grassroots clubs.”

Wheelchairs can cost up to £5,000, while funding for transport, refreshments, officials, and gym rental all come from the club kitty.

With sponsorship hard to come by, financial struggles almost killed the Sparrows.

Brixton make a late run to finish the quarter but it ends with the Sparrows leading 50-25.

Breaking down barriers

 

There’s a clash under the basket to start the fourth, a Sparrow’s player taking the brunt of the blow.

“Not guilty,” jokes a tall woman playing for Brixton.

After the game, she stands up and begins dribbling the ball.

“We try to include everybody,” says Amir, who campaigned to let able-bodied players participate in the sport. “The league eventually allowed able-bodied players to play as a five pointer.”

Each player on a team is given a score between one and five based on their level of disability. The Sparrows’ total points on the court can’t exceed 15.

Bumps and bruises

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Despite the fierce competition, the sportsmanship never fades; Credit: Thomas Macaulay

Side-lined with a shoulder injury today is the bespectacled Peter.

He’s been playing for four years since an accident at a construction site left him paralysed from the waist down.

Next week he’s trying wheelchair rugby. The game’s brutality has earned it the nickname of “murderball”.

Peter isn’t worried.

“You can’t break what’s already broken.”

The bumps keep coming. Kyp, one of the longest-serving players, takes a hit and leaves the court clutching his ribs.

He’s been playing for 35 years. “It was a very amateur sport when I started but it’s evolved, like any other sport.”

Kyp and his team mates are always on the lookout for new recruits.

“If we see someone in wheelchair we try to pounce on them,” he says.

“Most try to run away. You want to be considered as a normal person. In a group of disabled people, you feel like something different.”

The game winds down comfortably for the Sparrows. It’s 60-33 at the buzzer.

Watch our slideshow of the game

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“Physically they were quite strong,” says Amir. “But experience and togetherness took us through.”

The Sparrows remain unbeaten after eight games in the third division of the British Wheelchair Basketball League. Next up is a top of the table clash with the Essex Outlaws.

The Sparrows, says Amir, have maintained the diversity that the team was built on from the start.

“We had women, old, ethnic minorities, refugees; you name it,” he says. “And we were very successful.”

“We’ve brought a little bit of colour and character to wheelchair basketball in this country.”

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